Static is a serious problem at New Zealand's Scott Base in Antarctica. During the summer months, when the number of people living and working at the installation swells from a low of nine in winter to a maximum of thirty to forty, phone systems and other electronics get knocked out by the troublesome zap on a regular basis.
"In summer we've got a lot of people moving around the base, and what happens in most environments when you've got low humidity is that static charges build up," says Anthony Powell, 36, communications technician at Scott. "Because here there's almost zero humidity due to the low air temperatures, just moving around causes large static build ups. People grab a phone and the phone gets zapped."
Education goes some way to solving the static problem, but it still means that several phones have to get junked every week. "You can tell people about the problem, but they tend to forget," says Powell. "It's just lucky that we keep enough spares in stock!"
It's Powell's second season down on the ice. He originally came down as a Telecom NZ employee, but when the position was made redundant, he returned as a contractor doing the same job.
"I like the problem solving, taking what you've got to hand - which might not match what you need to get around some specific issue - and then fixing the problem," he says. Powell is technically responsible for just communications, but says that most electronics problems eventually find their way into his lap.
Winter finds the Scott crew preparing for the relatively busy summer months. Just prior to the beginning of the cold season the transceiver and radio repeater stations are stripped back, leaving the core electronics outside but removing the vulnerable antennas. "Lots of the equipment that is used and abused in summer needs to be fixed or modified in winter," Powell says. And it turns out that he's the man who gets the repair job. He's also responsible for testing and assessing equipment for the base. "Down here equipment, regardless of what it does, needs to be simple and reliable," he says. Radios are a great example. "The flash ones have LCD screens, but LCD stops working when the temperature falls below about minus ten. If the LCD doesn't work, then you can't tell what frequency you're listening to. It's not a good outcome."
So the radios tend to be strong but simple, with large knobs and dials for setting frequency and volume. "Remember that if you're wearing thick gloves, small buttons aren't going to be any use to anyone. So we need to think about these interface things before we agree to take the equipment."
Battery life is also a problem because a battery's efficiency reduces as the temperature falls. What's more, there's no smart, technically savvy solution to the problem. "The best way to keep a battery working is to keep it close to your body," says Powell. "People down here just need to make sure their radios are in an inside pocket."
In Antarctica, it seems, the best solutions are the most obvious ones. Perhaps the rest of the tech world should sit up and take notice?